BMW Z4
Click image to enlarge

by Jim Kenzie
photos by Laurance Yap

Albufeira, Portugal – Get over it. This is what at least some BMWs are going to look like over the next few years. The Z4 roadster replaces the Z3 in BMW’s line-up, and we can’t say we weren’t warned. It carries many design cues from the X-Coupe concept car which debuted in Detroit in 2001, although the X-Coupe was done after the production Z4 was finalized, to pave the way for – ease the pain of? – the shocking lines.

Chris Bangle, BMW’s American-born, amazingly articulate and ridiculously well-read chief designer, can quote everyone from composer Igor Stravinsky to early 20th century typographer Eric Gill to author Rodney “Trevanian” Whitaker (The Eiger Sanction) to support his belief that car design has to become less mechanistic, more human, more original.

He has postulated a “book-end” strategy, whereby the X-Coupe prefigures the lower-echelon (sporty, informal, agile) BMWs like the Z4, while the Z9 concept cars (coupe at Frankfurt 1999, convertible at Paris 2000) were precursors to the presence and luxury of the higher-end cars – the new 7-Series tail is clearly influenced by the Z9.

No-one will argue with the Z4’s basic proportions, that a classic roadster should have a long hood, short rear deck, short overhangs, a wide track. But Bangle can willingly, almost gleefully, explain every line, every bulge, every ridge on the Z4; when he does, it all makes perfect sense.

The diagonal slash that runs from behind the front wheel opening up to the base of the A-pillar is somewhat reminiscent of similar lines that appeared on the Fiat Coupe and Alfa Romeo GTV when Bangle was chief stylist for Fiat, some ten years ago.

“I don’t tell my designers to put slashes in the body sides,” he told me, although because of his background, they presumably know he wouldn’t reject such an idea out of hand. “You need something to express the dynamic energy in the car in that area between the front and rear wheels. You can do that with air outlet grilles in that location, which we have done before” – the BMW 507 of the late-’50s and the current Z8 – “and will do again” – bet on the 6-Series, due in a couple of years.

“The challenge is to find a new way to do that, and the slash is different.” It certainly is.

BMW Z4
Click image to enlarge

So is treating the “shut lines” – the cut lines that form the outline of the hood, doors and trunk lid – not as annoying compromises, but as styling devices in their own right.

In the Z4, the front edge of the hood defines a line that continues across the top of the headlights, wraps around onto the front fender, jumps across the front wheel opening, forms the underside of the door, breaks away to the rear wheel opening, again jumps the gap, and ends beneath the trunk lid. The upper belt line crowns over the front fender, dips under the door handle, then swells over the rear wheel opening.

“This is a line you don’t see anywhere else, in industrial design, or in nature,” says Bangle. He even designed a massive display for a Munich art museum around this theme.

The swollen trunk lid?

“Pure aerodynamics,” says Bangle, although enough trunk space for a pair of golf club bags was surely part of it.

Everywhere you look, there are chamfered surfaces, and small creases which Bangle calls “splines”, hinting at an animal/human bone structure beneath the sheet metal.

All of which pose huge challenges for Magna, which stamps the body panels for the Spartanburg South Carolina assembly plant, the sole source for the Z4. But is it pretty?

The majority of journalists at this launch would say “No”, but the final decision will be rendered in the court of the open market.

Looking at this car may or may not make you rigid, but there is no doubt that the car itself is rigid – about three times as stiff as the outgoing Z3. Yet it is actually lighter by some 25 kg.

The inside is considerably less controversial. The instrument panel features a pair of larger dials (speed and tach) nestled in tubes to reduce
reflections, with microscopic fuel and temperature gauges embedded in the tach. The rest of the fascia is a simple slab trimmed in high-gloss graphite or brushed aluminum (depending on colour choice) or, optionally, high-gloss sycamore.

Dominating here are face-level air vents, plus a series of buttons and knobs to control HVAC, radio and optional satellite navigation system.
Tucked under the dash are more buttons, to govern the various electronic driving control systems and the (optional) power top, which tucks out of the way at the touch (well, the “hold”) of a button – no need to unlatch anything.

The forward third of the top is a hard piece which forms its own tonneau cover when the top is folded. The Z-shaped top mechanism also takes up very little room in the trunk.

BMW Z4

BMW Z4

BMW Z4
Click image to enlarge

The seats, out of the 3-Series, are trimmed in leatherette (read: vinyl) in the 2.5, leather on the 3.0 (also optional with the smaller engine).

Air bags for the face, thorax and knees bring the whoopee cushion count to six. A variety of cubby bins looks after the flotsam and jetsam of everyday driving.

Mechanically, there is little to even argue about, let alone complain about, in the Z4. With most of the mechanical systems based on the
3-Series, the on-going class leader in the compact sports sedan market, how could it be otherwise?

Two engines are available, both inline sixes with double overhead camshafts and variable timing on both, four valves per cylinder and drive-by-wire electronic throttle. The 2.5 litre generates 184 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m., and 175 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,500 r.p.m.; the 3.0 litre does 225 horsepower at 5,900 r.p.m. and 214 lb.-ft. at 3,500 r.p.m.

A new engine management computer and revised intake and exhaust manifolds, enabled by an engine compartment that is actually roomier than that of the sedan, mean that real output is marginally better than other 3-Series cars, mostly in the realm of improved bottom-end torque.

Dr. Burkhard Goeschel, BMW Board Member in charge of Purchasing and Development, says no M-version is planned, but I can’t imagine it won’t happen eventually.

The 2.5 comes with a five-speed manual transmission; the 3.0 gets an all-new six-speed manual. A five-speed automatic is optional on both. The hard suspension bits, largely made of aluminum, are 3-Series too, but the spring, shock, bar and bushing tuning are unique to the Z4.

BMW’s complete range of driving electronics is either standard (ABS, Brake Cornering Control, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control) or optional (a new system called Dynamic Drive Control which allows the driver to re-program the steering and throttle opening curve for sportier performance).

Speaking of steering, an electric motor provides the added turning torque, as required. Electricity is easier to modulate than hydraulic energy, hence the re-programmability function noted above.

The fabulous weather that has graced The Centre of the Known Universe (a.k.a. Toronto) this summer – if this is Global Warming, bring it on – missed Europe altogether. Irony of ironies – BMW chose the south of Portugal to launch the Z4 because they can count on the weather here, and it rained almost all the time.

Not such a bad thing, perhaps – if you want to evaluate how, for example, Dynamic Stability Control works in a very potent sports car, you shouldn’t be doing it in the dry because you’ll be going VERY fast indeed if it all goes pear-shaped…

And the Z4 is potent. Only the 3.0 litre with six-speed manual was available to test, and while there is never enough horsepower, BMW claims a 0 – 100 km/h time of under six seconds for this engine (7.0 flat for the 2.5). Nothing about the car’s comportment led me to suspect otherwise. The pleasure is aural and well as visceral – above five grand, this engine wails like a Ferrari.

The new gearbox is a real joy – Miata-like shifts in a transmission designed to handle twice the torque.

I was a bit worried about the electric power steering – not all such systems have truly great feel, but this one was seamless and completely
unobtrusive.

The mechanical grip of the car on these wet and often muddy roads was astonishingly good; only on rare occasions when a patch of sand caught me out did the Directional Stability Control wake itself up momentarily to bail me out.

The main effect of pushing the “Sport” button to engage the Dynamic Drive Control feature and modify the steering and throttle characteristics was to turn its warning light on…

Europeans will get an optional “sport” suspension, which I also tried – it made the beautifully compliant standard ride harder without meaningful gains in real-world handling. Why bother?

Driven the way it begs to be driven, the Z4 needs better seats; sports seats with improved lateral support will make the option list some time next year.

The Z4 2.5i lists at $51,500; the 3.0i at $59,500. For a car which BMW says is positioned above the Z3, this is a relatively modest step in price (the last Z3s were $47,100 and $56,300 respectively).

That the Z4 is a vastly better car than the Z3, and a better bargain to boot, never mind the price increase, is undeniable.

If you like (or can overlook) its styling, and if you can ignore the delectable and oh-so-easy-to-love (albeit more expensive) Porsche Boxster, then head to your BMW store Monday morning.

A roadster? As winter sets in? Who knows? Our winter might be the summer of 2002 that Portugal never got.

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